Speaking at a press conference in London on March 22, Russia’s Ambassador to Britain, Alexander Yakovenko, said his country had no links with Cambridge Analytica, a British data firm involved in harvesting Facebook users’ personal information.
Likewise, Cambridge Analytica denies any ties with Russia. The firm’s CEO Alexander Nix, who is now suspended, told the British investigators, "We've never worked with a Russian organization in Russia or any other country, and we don't have any relationship with Russia or Russian individuals."
However, between 2014 and 2016, Cambridge Analytica repeatedly communicated and held at least three business meetings with representatives of the Russian oil giant Lukoil. The Russians specifically requested and received from Cambridge Analytica information regarding the use of social media and data to target American voters.
While the SCL Group, a British political and defense contractor, and its affiliate Cambridge Analytica denied the talks were political in nature, a company founder told the New York Times, Lukoil was interested in “data to tailor messaging to American voters.”
Lukoil has been on the U.S. list of Russian entities targeted for Ukraine-related sanctions since September 2014.
In November 2000, Lukoil acquired Getty Petroleum Marketing and its 1,300 gas stations in the United States.
In early 2000's, Lukoil was the target of a criminal investigation involving a multi-million-dollar cash smuggling scheme using the U.S. financial system.
Lukoil’s president, Vagit Alekperov, is #37 on Forbes’ list of the world’s richest people. He is also known for his loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Alekperov’s name features frequently in the Panama Papers database, involving international money laundering, as well as in a criminal investigation in Spain targeting Russia’s Tambov organized crime group, which allegedly has close ties to President Vladimir Putin.
Lukoil reportedly suffered the largest losses among those included on the so-called “Kremlin List,” the U.S. Treasury Department’s list of influential Russians linked to the Kremlin, after it was published last December. According to the Russian news agency RBC, Alekperov and his firm lost $226 million in the first hour after the list was published. Still, Lukoil remains #129 on Forbes’ list of the world’s biggest companies, worth $44.6 billion.
Another Cambridge Analytica link to Russia is Aleksandr Kogan, the firm’s researcher, who developed the app that allowed the harvesting of Facebook data.
Kogan has been teaching at the St. Petersburg State University in Russia and receiving Russian government grants for social media research at the same time he worked with Cambridge Analytica. He has informed his head of department at the Cambridge University about his work in Russia, but did not disclose this information in his CV.
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded, “President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election,” and sought to further President Trump’s chances.
Some of Cambridge Analytica’s key leaders were involved in the Trump campaign, though a specific connection has not been revealed publicly between the company and Russian efforts. And at this point, there is no publicly available evidence that the information Lukoil requested and received from Cambridge Analytica was used in the U.S. presidential election.
Lukoil and Alekperov would be capable, financially and politically, of supporting a Kremlin-directed operation as massive as the alleged meddling in the U.S. presidential election. Alekperov has close ties to President Putin. But publicly U.S. law enforcement and intelligence have not revealed a link between his company and the Kremlin influence campaign.
Yet there is enough evidence to conclusively debunk the Russian ambassador’s claim of no connections with Cambridge Analytica.